When we, in Australia, think about people living in poverty, it can be a struggle not to think of an abstract mass – statistics and media images rather than actual lives that are as complex and concrete as our own. When I travelled to East Timor with World Vision earlier this year, I wanted to do my level best to understand on a deeper level, and remember experiences and people with the authenticity they deserve. For me, that meant I wanted to capture moments, so I recorded the trip through a disposable film camera, a sketchbook and a journal, in which I collected all the little mementos of the trip. These physical and tangible things that I made and found are now intrinsically linked to the stories, the people, the emotions from the trip – things that are most real in the instant that they are experienced, and hard to recapture when the moment has passed.
We landed in Dili, East Timor’s tiny, coastal capital city in the morning, and the first thing I remember is realising that the air smelt different. In my journal, I scrawled that ‘…the air is warm and full, not like a hug, but like a ripped up phonebook and tourist photos are floating in every particle we breathe…’ which sounds kind of silly to me now, but I can remember sitting just inside the window of our accommodation for that night and writing as much as I could into my journal, trying to voice how different the feel of the place was. I painted this picture at breakfast just before we began our journey out into more rural parts of Timor. The sea looked so flat and calm, and the otherwise classic touristy island vista was broken up by rusty cargo ships and low hanging fog.
Sunday church was a big part of the community life in the parts of East Timor that we visited, and every church we saw was bright pastel-coloured in a nest of greenery. We were introduced to their Sunday school, and got to play rather chaotic games with the kids who attended. Kids scribbled drawings and their names into my sketchbook, and we chased balloons and gave our best efforts at getting to know one another, despite the language barriers and the rain spitting down. I wrote this poem on the way to the service, the bumps in the road covering the poem with ink streaks.
Windy roads and
Church clothes and
Tetum flying thick and fast above my head
Motorbikes – parked – and
Houses – empty – and
Pink, pink flowers against
Brushed and beautiful Sunday hair
New t-shirt, old ritual
Bananas hang in clumps on corners
Besser blocks, barbed wire and
Green and green and green
Turn on the de-mister
The rain has started again.
This was one of my favourite places we went to. Halfway up a mountain, the view from the balcony out over the steep valley of rice paddies and dark green mountains wrapped in cloud was spectacular. But my favourite thing was what was going on inside. Local women, pregnant and with young children, came to health post for a maternal and child health day set up by World Vision, and seeing the community this offered them, and seeing them help themselves and their families when given the chance to, meant watching them in their space, as if we weren’t even there, was one of my favourite moments of the whole trip.
Miranda is a volunteer who is essential to the success of the maternal and child health day at the health post. We went with her on the walk she does every week, to visit every pregnant mother and young family in her village. She’s been trained to do malnutrition checks, and also runs a mother’s club, which helps mums to keep their babies healthy. I was blown away by Miranda; her combination of gentleness and humour and determination, as well as the incredible difference she’s making within her own community.
Softly tracing the ledger pages
That simple gesture
A greater work
Than my young hands
Have ever known
We stayed one night with a wonderful lady called Elda in her home. She was so kind and welcoming, and apologetic that what she had to offer wasn’t we were used to that it hurt. It was difficult to stress to her that just by having us at all, just by being willing to let six strangers into her life for the time she did was kindness enough, and that we were so so happy to be there.
Red and red and red
Lean on the wall and there’s no escaping it
Apologies that hurt
Green papaya and white rice and black, black coffee
I don’t drink it at home,
But for her?
Instead of long poems and streams of thoughts on the page for that day, the one entry for that day is a poem, written shakily in the back of the car as we drove away.
Before, confusion bred eloquence
It breeds nothing
Just brews and stews and boils
Overtaken by bubbles of emotion
Silently exploding, condensing, evaporating
Then deep, deep quiet
Just images of weathered hands
And whispered prayers
Flashing fleeting across the insides of my stinging eyes.
There were so many other amazing people and stories – from the women who are changing their own lives by making banana chips and the eventful day that we joined their production line, to the fearless leader of a growers group called ‘the collective’ who is a volunteer called Theresa – raising ten kids and managing the sorting and transport to Dili of local produce by small-scale farmers. From the community that was taking charge of its water and sanitation through training from World Vision, to the three year old who threw my pen into a rice paddy at the preschool we visited – it’s difficult to condense our trip to East Timor into anything brief, or even cohesive. But one thing I know that I learned was that the small things that World Vision was doing – training volunteers, giving access to materials – was allowing communities to make the change they wanted for themselves. It was a slap in the face to see people who had to live without their basic rights. But the power I saw in people standing up to their situation, and, when equipped with the tools they needed, changing it to where they wanted to be, was incredible. I went home all the more determined to do my bit to keep the initiatives World Vision has in developing communities running. Because I know, I saw, in small actions and big smiles, that it works.